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Gov. Haslam plan would allow transit funds local referendums

Tennessee   ·   Public Transportation   ·   The Commercial Appeal

NASHVILLE - Nashville and other municipalities in Tennessee would be able to hold local public referendums to impose a surcharge on their sales tax rates to fund public transit projects under a transportation plan announced Wednesday by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

The local option proposal for transit, tucked into Haslam's larger comprehensive plan for a seven-cent increase on the sale of gasoline and 12-cent increase for diesel fuel, comes after the Regional Transportation Authority, composed of Middle Tennessee mayors, adopted a plan for a new $6 billion regional transit system last year.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and other transit advocates have been targeting the new state legislative session for approval of enabling legislation to allow local governments such as Metro to dedicate local tax revenue to begin paying for portions of the plan.

Barry, in a prepared statement, put her support behind Haslam's transportation plan, saying she appreciates the governor's inclusion of a local option for voters to approve dedicated transit funding. She also predicted a referendum on transit funding in Nashville would pass.

"I believe Nashvillians are willing to pay for a mass transit system that meets the needs of our growing community if given the chance to make that decision," Barry said. She added that over the coming months she intends to advocate for Haslam's transportation legislation, which she said "will keep Nashville and Tennessee moving forward."

Metropolitan, county and city governments could each hold referendums on a new sales tax surcharge for transit under Haslam's proposal. Barry has said she's holding off on proposing a funding mechanism for transit in Nashville until after the session.

Tennessee has a 7 percent sales tax with counties having the option to levy up to an additional 2.75 percent. Davidson County, home of Nashville, has room to increase its local sales tax option by only 0.5 percent. Half of any county local option sales tax must be dedicated to public education, which would limit the amount that could go to transit.

A half-cent increase on sales tax would have generated $143 million across the Middle Tennessee region in 2015, with $67.7 million coming from Davidson County.

Haslam's transportation bill, dubbed the IMPROVE Act, is now subject to approval of the Republican-controlled legislature, where the plan is expected to face intense scrutiny.

A group of business leaders from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce called Moving Forward, which is advocating for transit to combat growing congestion in the region, on Tuesday released a "scorecard" outlining their transit goals.

Among the the group's five priorities: identifying a local dedicated funding source for transit in the region by 2018 and netting passage of state and federal government revenue enhancements for transit by the end of this year.

"We need the state legislature to allow our local counties to put a dedicated transportation funding source on their ballots for voter approval," Gary Garfield, former CEO of Bridgestone Americas and chairman of Moving Forward, told the Metro Planning Organization at its Tuesday board meeting.

"That, to me, is democracy at its finest," he said. "It puts in the hands of the voters exactly what they want to do, how much they're willing to spend for exactly what results."

The proposed $6 billion Middle Tennessee regional transit system, endorsed by Barry following a lengthy community input process called nMotion, involves a wide assortment of transit options including light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit both within Davidson County and connecting to outlying counties.

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